Gagnon puts her all-around ski skills to the test in pursuit of Olympic medal

LAKE LOUISE, Alta. — Marie-Michele Gagnon has to trust her plan and her talent.

The 28-year-old from Lac-Etchemin, Que., wants to ski fast in two very different races to win a medal in February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Gagnon is a slalom specialist who kept a toe in the speed events of downhill and super giant slalom throughout her career.

A regular podium contender in slalom and proficient enough in speed races, the best results of Gagnon’s career have come in alpine combined.

The “Super Combined” is a speed race of either super-G or downhill followed by a slalom the following day.

The fastest aggregate time determines the winner, so the combined is a test of a skier’s all-around ability.

Gagnon won World Cup gold medals in 2016 and 2014 and placed sixth at this year’s world championship in the combined.

Her slalom credentials established, Gagnon is putting more time and energy into downhill racing this season to improve her chances at an Olympic medal in the combined.

The speed leg of the combined in Pyeongchang will be a downhill.

The switch is a labour of love for Gagnon. She made the Canadian team a decade ago on the strength of her results in super-G before gravitating to slalom and giant slalom.

“It’s what I really love to do,” Gagnon said. “Super-G I would say comes pretty naturally for me.

“Downhill needs some work. Every day until the Olympics is a training day, even though it is racing and I am going to do my best that I can do. It is ultimately towards Korea and the combined.”

Gagnon will race a World Cup downhill in Lake Louise, Alta., on Friday for the first time in her career. She’s competed in super-G at the Alberta resort before with her best result 10th in 2013.

Wednesday’s training run was cancelled due to soft course conditions, but another is scheduled for Thursday.

There are few all-rounders in ski racing as most specialize in either technical or speed disciplines.

American ski stars Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener and Michelle Gisin, as well as Michaela Kirchgasser of Austria are among the few who excel in both carving and gliding.

If Gagnon can win a medal in combined in Pyeongchang, she may be among the last to do so. The world governing body is considering phasing out the combined at major international competitions.

“It’s pretty sad they’re going to get rid of it,” Gagnon said.

In the meantime, it’s not unusual for Gagnon to train downhill and slalom on the same day. Getting enough reps to feel confident in both will be her challenge this winter.

“You want to learn to be confident with not so much training in each discipline,” Canadian women’s team coach Manuel Gamper said. “You want to learn to switch quick from the long skis to the short skis.

“Her weekly program is full. What helps is she’s physically very fit. I know I can put her in a physically challenging program.”

Gagnon wants to avoid the trap of worrying her slalom skills are eroding while she’s training and racing downhills, and vice versa.

“My progression is towards Korea, I know how to race and I’ve done this for a long time, so just to not get into that grind and thinking ‘oh my god, I can’t believe the slalom is gone,’” she explained.

“It’s going to come back, so not be so hard on myself.”

Gagnon has an ally in her renewed focus on the speed disciplines. Her boyfriend Travis Ganong is a downhiller on the U.S. men’s team.

When they were at the same training camp this past summer in La Parva, Chile, Ganong analyzed video of Gagnon’s training sessions and gave her tips.

“I think she’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Ganong said. “She’s fast.”

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